Blackbird Pastry by Megan Branning

Sing a song of sixpence

A pocket full of rye.

Four and twenty blackbirds

Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,

The birds began to sing.

Wasn’t that a dainty dish

To set before the king?

A dainty dish? Oh, I suppose, but did you never wonder how four and twenty blackbirds fit inside an ordinary pie? Well, just you ask my mother; she cooked it. She’s known for her baking skills—almost magical, some folks say. That’s why the king wanted her for his castle kitchens.

I saw that pie for myself, you know. They wasn’t blackbirds, not really. Magpies and rooks, they was. But mainly, it were the pastry what was interesting.

Mum had left me kneading dough while she went out to fetch more butter. Just like her. She always gives me the dull tasks. Who knows when she’ll teach me the good bits. I been asking her that for years.

Anyhow, I had the whole kitchen to myself, for once. But I wouldn’t for long. Some duke had ordered us to make a feast, to celebrate the king getting married to a new queen from some far-off country. My mother’s pie would be the most important part of the meal, the duke said. We’d been working since afore dawn.

So I sat down to have a rest while I could. That’s when I heard a bird squawking. It didn’t come from outside, neither. I went into the larder and noticed a cloth I’d never seen. I pulled it back, and what do you think I found underneath it? A cage full of birds, all fluttering about, noisy as you please.

One of them came right up to the bars and looked at me. And then he spoke. He truly did.

“Miss,” he said. “Let us out.”

“My name’s Belinda,” I told him.

“Belinda,” he said. “The cook means to put us in a pie today.”

I’d seen the crust cooling out on the table. Mum had asked me not to touch it. But it weren’t big enough for half the birds in that cage. “What, all of you?” I asked.

“All of us,” said the magpie. “Open the cage, please.”

“My mother’d have my hide if I let you lot escape.”

“Just me, then,” he said, and hopped to the door. “Please.”

“I don’t believe she means to put you all in the pie,” I said, and crossed my arms over my chest to show he didn’t have me fooled. “You wouldn’t fit.”

“I heard her say it. I’ll prove it to you if you’ll open the door.”

I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I were curious, and didn’t want to knead bread dough all morning, neither. I opened the door, and the magpie flew up onto my arm. The other birds didn’t even try to get out, but I shut the cage anyway.

I took him to the pie crust, and saw that it surely weren’t big enough to hold more than two or three birds his size.

“There, you see,” I said.

Well, he didn’t say a word, just jumped onto the table and swaggered about. Then he stopped, peered at the pastry, and in he went. He vanished, like he’d gone straight down a well. I swear, he did.

I knew my mum would tan my behind if I let that bird get away, so I jumped in after him. What else could I do?

It didn’t hurt when I landed. The ground felt like half-cooked dough. I sat up and looked about, and do you know something? It looked like dough, too. Hills and rocks all made of pastry crust dusted with flour, and smelling better than anything, let me tell you. Made me hungry.

I tilted back my head to see where I’d come in, but I only saw a pinkish colored sky.

The magpie landed on my shoulder. “Here we are,” he said, like it were nothing strange.

“Only where are we?” I asked. At least he hadn’t scarpered on me.

“Inside the pie, obviously,” he said.

“My mother’s pie?”

“That’s right.”

I shook my head. “How’d it get to be so big inside?”

“I’m more interested in why,” said the bird. “But more than that, we need to get back out.”

“It smells nice.” I walked over to a pastry hill and broke off a piece to eat. It tasted like my mother’s pie crust, what was famous all over the kingdom.

The magpie’s claws dug into my shoulder, and they was sharp as knives. “We need to find our way out and free the other birds,” he said.

“I thought you wanted to know why it’s so big in here.”

“I’m sure we can figure that out once we’re outside the pie,” he said, and took off to start swooping round. “Look for a door, Belinda.”

I did, but I couldn’t find anything. It felt like walking round in a pie crust forest, and it didn’t seem so nice after a while. The pink sky scared me, being so unnatural, and I wondered if we’d ever get out.

Then I started hearing footsteps. Maybe I only imagined it, since I got so frightened in them pie-crust hills, but it sounded like someone else walking about.

“Magpie?” I whispered, staring up at the sky, hoping to see him fly past. I spotted something black, only it grew too big to be him, and started squawking and croaking, and what do you think happened? Twenty-three birds landed on top of me, all feathers and feet and noise.

I fell on my bum, and they all made a hubbub, flapping and clawing. I couldn’t hear footsteps anymore, that’s certain.

The first magpie came back and stood on a pastry rock, cocking his head at me. “This is not good,” he said.

“Oh, do you think?” I shoved a rook off of my lap.

“We must find our way out,” said the magpie. “Now.”

“I thought I heard someone walking,” I said. “Afore all them birds got dumped on me.”

“Someone else? Did you see?”

“No.”

He ruffled his feathers and flicked his tail. “We haven’t got time to worry about it. We need to keep searching for a way out. Come on.”

He hopped along the ground in front of me now. Some of the other birds followed us, but most of them didn’t.

“Why did you come into the pie if you only wanted right back out?” I asked.

He kept moving and didn’t turn back to look at me. “I had to show you proof before you would free the others, didn’t I? Unfortunately, I misjudged how big it would be, and how hard it would be to escape.”

“Why is it so big anyway?” I didn’t mean to ask him, just meant to think out loud, like. Pies aren’t supposed to be the size of castles or forests or whole countries inside. They should only be big enough to hold some apples or meat.

My mum never told me she could make them this way. I had more to learn than I thought. Now I considered it, she hadn’t taught me much at all. Just breads and stews and such.

“It’s a curious thing,” said the magpie. “Your mother made the pie. Why would she do this?”

“I don’t know. I heard she made a pie full of birds, year ago. That’s probably why she got asked to make this one. But I never saw it. I thought it were just very large. On the outside, I mean.” That’s when I remembered something she’d told me. “I asked her once how she got to be such a good cook. She said the trick is making food what people don’t expect. Maybe that’s why?”

The magpie made an indignant chirp. “You call this food! Innocent birds in a pie?”

It got dark, then. The pink sky turned black, like the sun had gone down all at once. I bumped right into a pastry tree and almost fell over.

The magpie chattered. “We’re too late! The pie is closed!”

I felt him land on my shoulder, so I reached up to stroke his back. “We’ll be all right,” I said. I didn’t know if my mother meant to bake the pie or not. If she did, we wouldn’t be all right, truth be told.

“We have to think, we have to think,” said the magpie, and his claws dug into my skin again.

“Shh.” I wanted him to settle down. “My mother didn’t pluck the birds. She didn’t kill them. If she meant to bake the pie, wouldn’t she do that?”

They had got all stirred up now. I could hear them fussing and cawing nearby.

“Yes, yes,” said the magpie. “Yes, of course, you may be right. She might not plan to bake us. We may yet live. Oh, yes, thank you, wise Belinda.”

No one had ever called me wise afore. I didn’t know if it meant much, coming from a bird, but it made my face feel warm, just the same.

“Only, how do we find a way out, now?” I asked. “I can’t see nothing.”

That’s when I heard the footsteps again. It weren’t them other birds. Some person had come into the pie with us.

The magpie heard it, too, I could tell cause I felt him go all stiff.

“Who’s there?” I said.

The footsteps stopped.

A voice came back, all muffled. “The pie will come after the first course. When the king cuts into it, the birds will fly out. I promise, it will be most entertaining.”

It seemed like an odd sort of answer, but then I understood, it had come from outside the pie. Maybe the footsteps had, too. The magpie stopped holding my shoulder so tight.

I felt much better myself, I admit.

“Oh,” he said, and started chuckling. “Now I see.”

“There,” I said. “We’ll be all right. I told you.”

I sat down and leaned against a pastry hill, and broke off a piece to eat. The magpie pecked at it, and we stopped worrying, cause we knew we could get out, soon as the king cut the pie open.

A pink slice of sunrise came quite sudden, and then everything happened fast. A cloud of magpies and rooks exploded like a dropped bag of flour, pulling me up with them, and people shrieked and laughed, then shouted when I tumbled to the floor. Chairs scraped and the king jumped up, and I rolled over just in time to see a man dressed all in black leap out of the pie above me with daggers flashing.

I tried to grab him, but I couldn’t reach.

The king fell.

The man in black stepped over him and snatched the queen, pulling her toward him.

One more magpie burst out of the pie. My magpie. He spread his wings and flew in the assassin’s face, a blur of feathers. I jumped up and started hitting the man, and he dropped his daggers to protect his face from the magpie’s claws and my fingers.

Guards came stomping over. When it were all done, the king had a bruise from falling and the queen had a scrape, but that’s all. Birds had roosted in the rafters. The duke who’d told my mum to make the pie had tried to sneak out in all the commotion, but a guard had nabbed him. He weren’t too happy.

No one really paid any mind to me or my magpie, but I don’t care. Mum let me keep him for a pet, and he lives in the kitchens with us. He perches on the window sill and we feed him scraps. I named him Hero, and he likes the name well.

Some of the rooks haven’t come back down yet. They make a bit of a mess on the floor in the feast hall, let me tell you.

No one else ever thanked me, but Mum fussed over me and gave me a special supper, because she said I’m a hero, too, for saving the queen from an assassin.

I asked her why anyone would want to kill the new queen. She said it’s all politics and she don’t understand it, but it’s to do with what country the queen came from, like as not. Neither of us remembers what country that is.

As for my mother, she still makes pies, and the king still calls her the best cook in the whole kingdom. She says soon she’ll teach me how to make a proper pastry, only I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to make them like she does. Mum can make any sort of pie you could think of. But she’ll not be taking any more special orders from any more dukes.

That’s certain.